VATICAN CITY — It was the quietest of announcements that had the effect of a thunder-clap on the Catholic world: A year ago today, Pope Benedict XVI said in a voice so soft that cardinals strained to hear (and in a Latin not all could easily follow) that he was becoming the first pontiff to resign in more than half a millennium. On the eve of the anniversary, Benedict’s longtime private secretary credited his boss’ stunning decision with opening the way to the “enormous impact” Pope Francis is having on the church and world at large.
Monsignor Georg Gaenswein’s comments sent out a message of continuity between the awkward, bookish Benedict and his charismatic, superstar successor, the first Jesuit pope and the first pontiff from Latin America. It also may suggest that Benedict approves of the dramatic changes that Francis is bringing about within the church — even if many seem to go against the grain of his more restrained papacy.
“We are all seeing the impact that Pope Francis is having on the world, not just the faithful in the church but in the world — it’s an enormous impact — and this impact was also facilitated by Pope Benedict in resigning,” Gaenswein told Vatican Television. “He opened a possibility that until then wasn’t there, and we can see that Pope Francis has taken this situation in hand and we’re delighted.”
Gaenswein is in the historically unique situation of serving two popes: While he remains Benedict’s secretary, lives with him in his retirement home in the Vatican gardens and takes daily walks with him each afternoon, Gaenswein is also the head of Pope Francis’ household, arranging his schedule and appearing regularly with him at his Wednesday general audiences and other public events.
Gaenswein was by Benedict’s side on that Monday morning, Feb. 11, 2013, when, during the course of a routine announcement of new saints on a Vatican holiday, Benedict announced that he no longer had the “strength of mind and body” to be pope and would retire at the end of the month.
Francis was elected about a month later and has dazzled the world with his simple style, message of mercy over moralizing and a tone of welcoming that has thrilled progressive Catholics and troubled conservatives. He has since been named “Person of the Year” by Time magazine and has injected new life into an institution that was crumbling following a decade of scandal over sexual abuse, and more recently over the theft of Benedict’s private papers by his own butler.
As the anniversary of that momentous day approached, Vatican officials have sought to stress Benedict’s generosity, courage and service to the church in deciding to step down as they battle to preserve his legacy amid the increasing temptation to contrast his often problematic papacy and reserved personality with his crowd-pleasing successor.